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March 16, 2008


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Yes, Noel, you probably do need more practice. Because you've just managed to define Barack Obama - and yourself - as an American nationalist.

Basically, you're saying that under the presidency of Barack Obama, the United States would move from confrontation to conciliation, while still continuously looking after its own interests because those come first. Occasionally he'd flex some muscle, but only if it's absolutely necessary for the security of the country.

That's one form of nationalism, not unlike the path that was chosen by the country that I live in after 1863 and 1944 (and still followed today). And there's nothing bad about it, because "nationalism" in itself is not and does not have to be a bad thing.

Orwell's contrast isn't particularly useful, by the way, because it tells more of his personal history than of any objective definitions of "nation" and "nationalism".

No offense, but instead of advancing this peculiar dichotomy between "patriotism" and "nationalism", you could have just as well said that in comparison between Obama and Hillary, the latter's brand of American nationalism is probably of the sort that would not go down quite as well with the rest of the people on this globe.


J. J.


After saying that a definition wasn't useful, you then proceded to use it to make a rather salient point.

You see the problem, of course.

The problem isn't just that Orwell's definitions are not useful; you were also misusing them.

"Barack Obama is a patriot. Therefore, Barack Obama is not a nationalist". This doesn't even fit with Orwell's dictum. Where did you get the idea that patriotism and nationalism should be inevitably considered as mutually exclusive?

Moreover, you missed my criticism of your arbitrary use of definitions - i.e., that instead of using terms such as "patriotism" and "nationalism" as opposing labels, you could have just as well used _one, single term_, "nationalism", presenting the two candidates as the flip sides of that same coin.

Because that's what they would be, at least according to what you wrote. The ideals of Obama and Clinton (and you) are, based on your interpretation, all equally representative of the different strands of American nationalism. To argue that Obama or you are not nationalists would be yet another case of those "rational Americans convincing themselves that their nationalism is not nationalism".

You also made a comment of how Clinton speaks of the "United States as a nation with a mission, endowed by the draw of history"... well, what was that thing you yourself spoke of some weeks back, of the symbolic importance of electing Obama in a nation founded by immigrants? "Fulfillment of destiny" would be just one more example of nationalist rhetoric. And Obama is making these same appeals.

(And again: there's nothing wrong with it.)

Furthermore, I'm a bit baffled by some of the things you've written. Especially the part: "... whose well-being he'll define as the well-being of the constituencies that he cares the most about."

I haven't watched "Wire". So what are you saying? That according to you, Obama is a _populist_? Because that's a whole hell of a lot label than "nationalist".

In the rare case that my opinion would be of any interest, I regard Obama as a genuine nationalist who's committed to his ideals. Clinton, on the other hand, seems more like a person who cynically and opportunistically exploits nationalist tendencies for her own goals without actually subscribing to those ideas herself.


J. J.

Jussi, I usually find semantic debates frustrating, but because I hope you be a person of good will, I'll make an exception. (You might not have realized it, but you've been coming across as quite hostile since the swastika discussion. If it helps, I apologize for my initial outrage at discovering the symbol's use in Finland.)

Patriotism here is defined as a preference for your nation-state and its customs.

Nationalism is defined as a belief that your nation-state and its customs are inherently superior.

If the distinction is to have meaning, then the second has to be a subset of the first.

I implicitly labelled everything falling outside the second set but inside the first "patriotism." That must be where the confusion lies, because all else is semantic.

It is also possible to call these things two varieties of nationalism, but then one needs to invent adjectives with which to modify ones adjectives. That is a lot of work for a Sunday.

Orwell's distinction has the advantage of jibing with the implicit difference that most American English-speakers draw between the two words.

It has the additional advantage of giving "patriotism," as defined, a neutral connotation and "nationalism" a negative one. That also fits the way the terms are used in common speech.

I do hope that's clear.

Regarding "populism," well, you'd have to define that for me. I was stating, briefly and (apparently incorrectly) somewhat humorously that Barack Obama defined the well-being of the United States has being far more closely related to the well being of the bottom half of the income distribution --- especially those with little chance of moving out of their part of the distribution in their lifetime.

The reference to the Wire's second season had to do with the fact that the second season dealt both with the people trapped in Baltimore's ghettoes and the dockworkers finding that technological change had made their livelihoods far more precarious, and that legal and political changes had weakened the institutions that traditionally provided them economic security.

I certainly hope that clears up that reference; I made it mostly because The Wire is well worth watching by anyone who wants to understand modern America.

Finally, you seem to have understood my substantive point, and you seem to agree with my substantive point. You also seem to agree that my definitions are quite useful. You do have a disagreement with the terms to which I attached my definitions (pace Orwell).

I hate to say it Jussi, because we are both prickly men and I do not wish to offend, but it seems to me that you are simply reacting negatively to any attempt separate the meaning of the words "nationalism" and "patriotism." I can understand that, I think, but it has the disadvantage of making your implicit definitions different from that of most American English-speakers and thus impeding communication.

The Wire reference, badly written, yes. Was the rest really that confusing?

Noel, the study of modern nationalism, its various incarnations and their history just happens to be my field.

Therefore, to me, these labels are more than simply semantic issues. I'm pretty sure that your reaction wouldn't be much different if someone wrote of the economics using the terminology in a similar fashion.

My main trouble was exactly that; as you said, you gave the word "nationalism" an explicitly negative tone. For a person who, say, advocated the rights of the indigenous people to receive education in their native language in their own country - which is a form of nationalism - this negative label would be very difficult to accept, and appear as a very, very unfair.

As for "populist"; in a colloquial speech over here, it applies to a politician who unashamedly courts the popular opinion and very often some specific segment of it, emphasizing, say, regional or class issues.

So, when you write of Obama defining the well-being of the United States as the "well-being of the constituencies that he cares the most about", obviously it created an impression of some form of pork-barrel politics.

Sad to say, but your new definition didn't manage to change this image. You're suggesting that Obama equates the well-being of the entire United States with the well-being of a particular social class, namely the "bottom half of the income distribution"?

Perhaps this is justified and even necessary, given how things are in the United States, but by the standards that I'm used to, a statement such as that would be a real disservice to any politician.

When it comes to "most American English-speakers", well, Liah Greenfeld may be of Russian and Jewish origins, but he teaches in Boston, and her definitions of "nationalism", including the case of the United States, don't fit with the ones that you were using. Still, I gather that her works are standard academic reading in the country that you live in.

The final comment on impending communication with American English-speakers is definitely interesting and given the topic, there's a lot of unintentional irony in it.

(And if this was "hostile", I have to say that it's really in the eye of the beholder.)


J. J.

Re hostility: it's always in the eye of the beholder. My father once said, in rather earthier terms, that perceptions are reality in dealing with others, and if somebody perceives you as coming across in a certain way, then you are coming across in that way. Of course, you might not care, but that only reflects on how much you value the interaction.

I am, of course, quite guilty of this. I'm an angry man in general, and that shines through in my electronic communication. Except when I care.

Your last post doesn't read hostile at all. The tone is quite different, and I do appreciate that.

Re Liah Greenfield: to be perfectly honest, I had never heard of her. That's my failing, however, and not germane to this discussion. What is germane is that the academic usage of words is not always the same as the popular one. Her own description of her students' reaction to the word in her "Nationalism and the Mind" lecture makes the point better than I ever could.

http://www.bu.edu/uni/iass/neuro/Nationalism%20and%20the%20MInd.pdf, page 3.

Re the parallel with economic terminology: to be honest, I'm not sure. I teach at a business school, so I'm well familiar with the way strategy departments take basic microeconomic concepts such as elasticity or contestability and translate them into the terminology of the "five forces." In a related example, I usually try to avoid buzzwords in the classroom.

I'm an economic historian, not a "real" economist, so I might not be representative, but I'm not sure that terms are that freighted.

"Rationality" is the only one that I can think of, but there is still a difference. Economists define "rationality" in an almost-ludicrously specific way, whereas sociologists deliberately define "nationalism" to include a large multitude of sentiments under the rubric of "belonging to a national community."

Re "populism": okay, I get your use of the term, it's pretty standard. Thing is, Obama deliberately /doesn't/ court particular interests in his rhetoric. He does, of course, implicitly value the well-being of certain categories above that of others ... but everyone who has any opinions at all about public policy does that when forming their opinions. Everyone /has/ to do that. It's a tautology.

(BTW, his campaign hangs on today's speech.)

Re "communication": I'm not seeing the irony. I suppose you're saying that I've defined nationalism a negative thing, and I'm being a nationalist by implying that a non-standard use of commonplace terms impedes communication. You'd have to accept the broad definition of nationalist to get the irony. You'd also have to deny that the miscommunication problem exists. But it is interesting!

I suspect that it says a lot about Americans and our history that we insist on separating good "patriotism" from bad "nationalism," but I'll be damned if I have an idea what. What do you think?

I don't think Obama's candidacy hanged on today's speech, except as far as it shows that Obama can survive fake media controversies. I personally doubt that Obama's delegates would have fled en masse had he let the cable news cycle burn itself out with only (say) an extended set of controversy interviews with fat ignorant white men.

But it was a brilliant speech, and a nice bit of verbal judo, reframing the issues in Obama's favor. Again.

That would be the speech on a "more perfect Union"? With its numerous references to the American past, and the nice cathcphrase: "I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible"?

(But of course it would be. And not just possible, but in some countries, even quite likely. But never mind that for now.)

That's nationalist rhetoric par excellence - and unlike in the case of Clinton, it's also quite clear that Obama believes what he is saying. He really sees the United States as a nation with a mission, endowed by the draw of history, and he bases this belief on his own personal history and his identity.

There's nothing wrong with that. In fact, it all seems rather benign. And I would suspect that Obama wouldn't feel at all insulted if he was described as a nationalist - unlike Orwell, who still had to reject the term, due to his specific political background.

... in passing, Clinton does not deliver that same impression of a person who believes in those national ideals and national mission. Instead, I get the feeling that she sees _herself_ as the one with a mission, endowed purely by her own personal superiority, and she regards the presidency of the United States simply as the perfect instrument in the pursuit of this agenda.

Perhaps I've characterized her as a more satanic person than what she actually is, but I've had a lot of practice with this, observing the leading politicians of a certain large neighbouring country.

As for where this deliberate separation between "nationalism" and "patriotism" in the United States actually comes from... well, I don't know the first damn thing of the history of the American thought, but what the hell, I can always speculate.

You already used the word "Empire" when speaking of the United States. That would probably explain part of the reason why the word "nationalism" has a negative echo, and why it's replaced with the word "patriotism" instead. In the other similar countries of the world, by the way, the corresponding word would probably be "loyalism".

The one historic secession attempt may have had something to do with it, even though the said political separatism obviously failed in translating itself into a rivaling ideal of nationalism. Still, it's a reminder.

(Obama's hi-jacking of the Confederate flag for his speech was a very nice touch, by the way.)

The same "Imperial" position has raised other nationalist movements in defiance to the authority of the United States, which may be another reason making the label an unattractive one. You made that series of posts on Puerto Rico a while back. Then there's Hawaii. So, for some Americans, the characterization of "nationalism" may be unwelcome, because it's a label that's more often associated as the business of, you know, those other people.

(Again, I may be reflecting the attitudes prevalent in a certain large neighbouring country.)

Also, "nationalism" may be often conflated with "nativism", which has a special and, at least from today's viewpoint, an explicitly negative echo in the American tradition.

But of course there's also characteristic and pure American nationalism, as testified by that speech by Obama quoted above. Memory of common past and a sense of historic mission, concept of equality surpassing the social cleavages, sense of unity; all the elements are firmly there.

Scholars of modern nationalism such as Hroch, Hobsbawm or Anderson would have absolutely no trouble applying their models on Obama and his words. Mutatis mutandis, of course; the usual preconditions of common ethnicity would obviously have to be left out, but there are also some large countries in Europe where a shared ethnicity has not always been of paramount importance to the common national emotion.

Умом Aмерику не понять,
Аршином общим не измерить.
У ней особенная стать,
В Aмерику можно только верить.

Happy holidays.


J. J.

Ah, but here's the difference between the two candidates: Obama doesn't believe (or act like he believes) that the United States has any inherent superiority in the world. That shines through most clearly in the candidate's two articles in Foreign Affairs. After similar beginnings, the two veer off in strikingly different directions.

That said, Obama's claim that his story would only be possible in the United States --- clearly nationalist. Canada had Ujjal Dosanjh, and other European or countries of European settlement have their prominent non-white and second-generation immigrants.

Right? Right?

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